“I’ll Be Fire”: Who Will Throw a Boot on the Remote Control?

The incident in the Black Sea concerning the manoeuvres of the British destroyer HMS Defender led to an exchange of information and diplomatic jabs between Russia and the UK. Russia and the West have a fundamentally different understanding of the legal status of the Republic of Crimea, and hence its sea borders. The British do not recognise Crimea as Russian. They regard the territorial waters in which the incident took place as Ukrainian. Russia regards them as its own, with all the consequences which ensue in the event of a border violation. The manoeuvres of NATO ships near the border and its violation are attempts to pursue political goals. The show of force was in fact a show of political support for Ukraine. Accordingly, Russia will inevitably take actions to expel violators, including with the use of force or threats of its use. Such a case is far from being the first or the last. Such incidents will be repeated systematically.

The question arises, what if the sides cross the “red lines” and the warning shots, for one reason or another, take a toll in human life? Participants generally avoid taking matters to extremes. Everyone understands that such incidents are more political than military in nature. Sometimes it leads to dangerous brinkmanship; ships sometimes even ram into one another. However, the use of force is an exception rather than the norm. A similar incident took place, for example, with Ukrainian boats and a tug that were detained while trying to pass through the Kerch Strait in 2018 in violation of Russian rules. However, the use of such manoeuvres against a large warship flying the flag of a NATO member state already carries more significant risks.

And yet, such a scenario cannot be disregarded. Any incident presents a crisis, which, as a rule, unfolds unexpectedly for one of the parties, and is characterised by a lack of information among the parties about mutual intentions, and requires split-second decision-making. In such a situation, the role of the human factor increases—the specific decisions of people who look at each other through scopes and crosshairs. Erroneous decisions, accidents and many “grey swans” are possible here.

In a different setting, the decisions of an officer or even a private are unlikely to affect great power politics. But during such an incident, they can be decisive.

A Soviet joke “Who threw a felt boot on the remote control?” or the cult American film Dr. Strangelove are the archetypes of this kind of development. History knows cases when deadly first shots were fired on the orders of the top leadership, which, however, also may not have all the information.

Imagine a hypothetical situation when one day the HMS Defender or any other ship with a similar mission returns to the Black Sea and performs a similar manoeuvre. Russian planes take off again, ships leave. The foreign visitor is in the sights of coastal anti-ship weapons arrays. Suppose that a Briton or any other NATO representative behaves even more assertively, remembering all the mockery about the Russian warning fire, which allegedly did not exist. The parties are likely to make some noise and disperse again.

But there are also direr, less likely ‘what if’ scenarios. For example, the pilot of an attack aircraft, tasked with dropping bombs along the course of a NATO ship and only warn him, suddenly dumps them right on the deck. Why does he do this? Maybe for personal reasons, believing that the leadership is showing weakness, and that it is high time for the presumptuous Westernisers to be shown their place. Maybe because of a technical mistake that even a high-profile professional can make. This is all highly unlikely. But nobody can entirely cancel out the human factor.

The same propensity for less desirable scenarios are hidden aboard a foreign ship. The technically incorrect and almost impossible use of naval air defence resulting in the subsequent destruction of the incoming aircraft. This would create a subsequent cascade of scenarios, the result of which could entail return fire from the shore, from the air or from the sea.

There could be another scenario, where the decision to simply destroy the ship is made at the level of top authorities. Just to stop a bad practice. This is extremely risky. And it is also extremely unlikely. But why not? In 2010, the South Korean corvette Cheonan sank in disputed waters. According to several countries, it was sunk by a North Korean submarine. So there are precedents, albeit amid different conditions.

Now let’s imagine a new sequence of events. As a result of one of the unlikely, but numerous scenarios, the HMS Defender was hit by a missile (torpedo, aerial bomb, artillery shell, etc.). It is engulfed in flames and sinks. The crew, in fireproof jackets, are fighting in vain for survival. A correspondent from a popular British channel aboard the sinking ship, amid the horror, broadcasts a live picture of what is happening. Perhaps this is his last broadcast.

Could an episode like this provoke a war? Most likely not (although unlikely scenarios, again, must be kept in mind). Most likely, it would lead to a deep political crisis. There is no doubt that the NATO countries would support their ally. Possible manifestations of the crisis would be:

  • A large-scale expulsion of diplomats or a complete termination of diplomatic relations. The application of this measure may vary from country to country, but there is no doubt that the damage to diplomatic relations would be serious.
  • The dispatch of a NATO fleet to the scene of the incident. A subsequent show of strength. One of the options is the passage of the NATO squadron along the same course under powerful air cover and with a deliberate violation of the air and sea border. This would be a major step towards escalation. It is risky, but such a move would be dictated by considerations of prestige, which would increase its likelihood.
  • The expansion of the sanctions regime against Russia from the USA, Great Britain, Canada, and the EU countries. Perhaps—the implementation of some form of “draconian sanctions”.

It is obvious that a demonstration of force and diplomatic measures will also come from the Russian side. It cannot be ruled out that the consequences of such a crisis will be smoothed over time. However, unlikely forks can play a cruel joke during the escalation process. Moreover, the consequences will be much more devastating.

From our partner RIAC

Ivan Timofeev
Ivan Timofeev
RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.